[Viewpoint] Park Chung Hee’s impossible dream

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[Viewpoint] Park Chung Hee’s impossible dream

Half a century has passed since Major General Park Chung Hee led a coup on May 16, 1961, and started decades of rule by the military. And yet, Park is also the progenitor of South Korea’s industrialization drive of the 1960s and 1970s, laying the foundation for the country’s rags-to-riches transformation, the so-called Miracle on the Han. He remains highly controversial, mainly because of his repression of democracy. Still, his accomplishments eclipse his mistakes. Most important, Park must be credited for rallying the nation’s collective strength. Koreans have always been proud of their rich history, but became insecure during their traumatic past. Lacking both wisdom and strength, our ancestors lost the country to Japan and failed to unite the country after liberation from colonial rule.

Our land was torn asunder first, and then devastated by a war. Koreans ended up feeling like losers who could only envy Americans for their riches and Japanese for their successful rise from the rubble of war.

Amidst a national mood of self-pity and despair, the no-nonsense Park Chung Hee cried out that we were as capable as the Japanese. Single-handedly, he freed the people from the chains of defeatism and rallied a spirit of hope in their hearts. To rouse an entire population is as miraculous as a man moving a mountain. He revived and unleashed a long-dormant inner spirit of tenacity and ambition in Koreans, which blossomed into an enormous national energy and strength.

Park can be compared to the 19th century statesman Otto von Bismarck, who brought together the Prussian people with a new purpose. With the rallying cry that they had nothing to fear except God, he united various kingdoms to create a powerful German empire.

Park revived the Korean style can-do spirit, and that is his most valuable legacy. We became infatuated with what he believed we were capable of, and worked feverishly to prove ourselves. In the end, we were rewarded with riches as we became one of the largest economies in Asia and a member of the developed countries of the world.

To Park, leadership was an act of commitment. He attended trade promotion meetings and was devoted to spearheading economic drive. But his passion was not simply driven by economic concerns. He regarded politics and leadership as realms for heroism, and he proved himself correct about that.

Heroes are usually made on battlefields. But the ancient Romans showed that heroes can be produced on the political stage too. The founder of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus, is famous for his stoicism. He handed down a death sentence to his own sons when they were found to be conspiring against the republic and oversaw their execution.

Park, too, was been a man of iron, and he didn’t waver when his vision or projects were sneered at or opposed. His vigilance and ambition remind us of the famous anthem sung by Don Quixote in the musical “Man of La Mancha,” “The Impossible Dream.”

The lyrics of the song go: “To dream the impossible dream; To fight the unbeatable foe; To bear the unbearable sorrow; To run where the brave dare not go ... To reach the unreachable star ... And the world will be better for this; That one man, scorned and covered with scars; Still strove with his last ounce of courage; To reach the unreachable star.”

We don’t expect heroic sacrifices in democratic politics. The representatives elected every four or five years are mediocre, power-motivated people. Today’s politicians have brought discredit upon themselves and the whole system of democracy. They call themselves idealists, but they never take their eyes off of approval ratings and future votes.

There are none who seek the impossible dream or take the lonely path. But by merely chasing votes, politicians become mere followers. A real politician should be able to shepherd the people and lead them beyond today’s horizon.

Today’s politicians should heed Park Chung Hee’s legacy and look for his type of vision and challenges.

*The writer is professor of civil ethics education at Seoul National University.

By Park Hyo-jong
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